Shareen Campbell, 61, chairs Swindon City of Sanctuary, an independent local part of a national movement welcoming and supporting people fleeing violence and persecution. Her recent innovations include the first of a regular series of guided walks, run by volunteers and open to all, giving newcomers a better idea of their surroundings. Shareen and her partner, Phil Saunter, are restaurateurs and live in Swindon

SWINDON City of Sanctuary’s hope for those it helps is easily summed up.

“We want them to feel,” said Shareen Campbell, “that they can relax, that they don’t have to be on their guard, that they don’t have to be looking over their shoulder, wondering who is going to hurt them or threaten them, that they’re not going to have to move again, that they can express themselves and be listened to and be accepted and find somebody to love and who might love them, that they can breathe easily and sleep at night.”

Projects begun since the Swindon organisation was set up about a year ago include establishing a network of host households. These offer short-term accommodation when asylum seekers are granted official refugee status, but have only a month in which to secure a home and income before their accommodation and £5 a day Home Office allowance are taken away.

Other City of Sanctuary projects include pop-up restaurants in which newcomers show off their cuisine and cookery skills, weekly social evenings at Darkroom Espesso in the town centre, and a football team, Swindon United.

Initially fielding only refugees and asylum seekers, the team came to include people from throughout the community as friendships were forged.

Core funding comes from the Joffe Trust, and there have been two Wiltshire Community Foundation grants.

Shareen, who has chaired Swindon City of Sanctuary since the summer, is originally from Belfast and has lived in Swindon for 35 years.

She has vivid memories of the Troubles and suspects the experience shaped her attitudes.

“Of course, I don’t claim to understand what it’s like to be in a war-torn country, but I think that this understanding of living in this unfree environment where if you go out at night your bag gets searched and you get body searched, and the streets are full of soldiers and armoured cars and sandbags – it sets up some understanding of what people might be going through.

“Maybe that it what inspires me to want to do this kind of work – maybe.”

Shareen worked as a civil servant and in the NHS before co-founding Los Gatos in Old Town in 2006.

Something she did for new restaurant staff from overseas inspired her idea for the guided walks.

“I have welcomed staff from France and Spain personally, and they have arrived in Swindon not knowing anything. We have a staff flat in Wood Street. They used to arrive and I’d show them the flat and they’d be terrified because they wouldn’t know anybody or anything.

“I’d take them for a little walk around town and just say, ’Here’s the supermarket, here’s the bank…’ – just for 20 minutes to orient them, to say this is where they’d find the essential things.”

People who come on the City of Sanctuary Walks can expect a useful, friendly grounding in where the things they need, from the library to banks, can be found.

“Swindon has been a dispersal town for 14 years and there is an existing charity, the Harbour Project, whose role is to directly support the asylum seekers and refugees when they first arrive.

“That means helping them with very specific, direct things, like cooking, language skills, sorting out finances, bus travel, things like this. Accommodation is provided by the Home Office until they get their leave to remain and then, when they get their leave to remain, they become refugees.

“Then they pretty quickly get chucked out on their own, and the Harbour Project tries to prepare asylum seekers for that time. What the City of Sanctuary does is very much in partnership with the Harbour, but we are looking at it from another angle – we’re the people of Swindon who want to say Swindon is a place which will welcome refugees, and we are here to offer our hospitality, our shops, our businesses, our bars, our cafes, and you are welcome to be part of our community.

“We see our role as to help Swindon people to integrate with each other, and included in those Swindon people are the new people who come to Swindon.

“They may not only be refugees. People come to live in Swindon from all over the place. People come from Europe and beyond Europe. Because of the nature of the industry in Swindon we have an international population.

“Asylum seekers get sent to Swindon on a bus from wherever they’ve landed by the Home Office, without any choice. They might have come straight from a port or an airport, they might have come from a detention centre.

“It is also about saying to these people, ‘You’re not the only new arrivals here. People come here to work at Nationwide, Honda, The Swindon Advertiser, Los Gatos, the new restaurant in town. They come from other parts of this country for work and for other reasons.’

“They’re all welcome on the walks as well, and if we can gather all of these people, gradually build it up so that everybody knows, then the HE department at the hospital, when six new nurses arrive from the Philippines can say, ‘Next week, if you want to find out about Swindon, go on the walk.’

“And they might get to know not just each other but other people. This is about normalising refugees along with other people who happen to have ended up in a new town.”

The organisation welcomes inquiries from all who wish to help with its work. That help might be anything from the offer of a meeting room to a simple pledge to be friendly and welcoming. More trustees are needed, and inquiries from potential treasurers are especially welcome. For more information visit